Over the 12-13 of January, writers, academics, broadcasters, politicians, activists, and other movers and shakers of the public square gathered in Cambridge for a conference entitled ‘Towards the Common Good: Rethinking Race in the 21st Century,’ organised by The Equiano Project, to discuss questions surrounding the ‘new politics of race,’ ‘progress in racial equality,’ and ‘how to build a new age of tolerance.’ The conference organisers were writer and political commentator Inaya Folarin Iman and Cambridge University political philosopher—and important contributor to Burkean studies—Professor Richard Bourke.
The conference had a long line of brilliant speakers, every one of whom offered insightful reflections on history, literature, contemporary culture, and the threats raised by social media, among other topics. Amongst the many impressive speakers were Columbia University professor of linguistics John McWhorter; political adviser Munira Mirza; Cambridge University professor of philosophy Arif Ahmed; writer, podcaster, and hip-hop artist Coleman Hughes, Observer columnist Sonia Sodha; Brown University professor of the social sciences Glenn Loury; Lord Tony Sewell, of CRED Report fame (a report which concluded that any “claim the country [the UK] is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence”); Michaela Community School headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh; columnist and director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies Paul Johnson; York University lecturer in politics Remi Adekoya; policy adviser and journalist Mercy Muroki; Bard College professor of humanities Thomas Chatterton Williams; New Statesman columnist Tomiwa Owolade; writer and broadcaster Sir Trevor Phillips; Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jason L. Riley; and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Ian Rowe.
I don’t know why I was invited to this conference—which was ‘invitation only’—but the topic of race, ethnic identity, and national belonging has fascinated me for some time, a few thoughts about which I published in The European Conservative a couple of years ago. The conference information that I had received plainly stated that its organisers were self-identified liberals, and they planned to propose liberal solutions to the problems and complexities raised during the event, which indicated to me that any suggested solutions would be rather flawed or limited. Nonetheless, on account of the importance of the topic, I had decided to attend.
The conference was self-consciously ‘liberal’ in the classical sense (what some people regrettably call ‘conservative’), and many predictable but nonetheless welcome opinions were voiced about the unpleasantness of BLM, the foolishness of calling for reparations, and the deleterious effects of ‘victimhood culture.’ The many points made, both theoretical and practical, also included expressive anecdotes about the rising industry of offence-taking. One of the speakers, a senior academic, told us that his university had sent him and other colleagues to be re-educated in order to overcome their ‘unconscious bias.’ During this ‘training’ he asked whether—if one is informed of having committed a ‘micro-aggression’—one could ask for evidence that this micro-aggression had actually been committed, to which he was informed that asking for such evidence would itself be a further micro-aggression. When he explained why such a response was unacceptable, he was told by the ‘instructor’ that it would be preferable if he didn’t “intellectualise or over-think what was expected of him.”
The insights of academics present were particularly helpful. One professor noted that there is a common and entirely erroneous assumption that the ‘new race politics’ of victimhood and vengeance has emerged organically due to greater historical awareness and a more acute understanding of justice. In fact, the professor noted, there was little to indicate that people have developed a better grasp of history or ethical imperatives, and that the new race politics was largely a creation of academics who saw themselves principally as activists—who in turn experimented with their ideas on the uninformed and unformed minds of their undergrads. Were it only a small fraction of the population who undertook tertiary education, perhaps this trajectory would not be so troubling, but universities now train over 40% of the UK workforce, institutions in which students are ‘educated’ either directly or indirectly according to critical race theory—whatever their chosen discipline—and will rarely (if ever) encounter any moral worldview that is at odds with its noxious doctrines.
Repeatedly, both speakers and attendees expressed astonishment at the speed with which the country has undergone “institutional capture” and has seen the growth of a “victimhood industry.” It was regularly said that movements like BLM, as well as the oft-heard calls for reparations for slavery and insistence that “intergenerational trauma” explained ongoing struggles faced by ethnic minorities, were inappropriate transpositions to the UK of ideas that belong in America—if they belong anywhere at all. “Britain is not America” became an oft-uttered mantra of the conference. All present seemed to agree that seeking ‘equality of outcome’ was both irrational and de-humanising, and that constant initiatives to expand ‘affirmative action’ was tantamount to telling certain identifiable ethnic groups that without the condescension of others they simply couldn’t socially advance: an ‘equal playing field,’ it was apparently felt, might lead to their ruin. “Just treat us like adults!” exclaimed one speaker.
The solution offered—which is the standard liberal solution—was that of creating a more meritocratic society. It was said again and again that ‘affirmative action’ and other such initiatives were dragging society away from the meritocratic ideal that liberals should try to realise. As R.R. Reno pointed out in Return of the Strong Gods, however, there is no such thing as an ‘equal playing field,’ and the meritocratic ideal is especially deceptive for its realisation re-orders society into new, pre-determined hierarchies whilst concealing that it is doing just that. A meritocratic society is one that is in fact predisposed to privilege those with excellent communication skills. Such skills, however, are far from the only gifts one can bring to social participation. In turn, meritocratic societies naturally adversely affect those with a whole host of virtues that are beyond the concern of the sort of managerial elite that meritocratic societies rapidly generate. And whilst the liberal typically sees no problem with a growing managerial elite that operates as an oligarchical intelligentsia over the rest of society, the emerging populist movements of Europe and the U.S. indicate that many people are losing patience with such overlords.
Criticisms of the ‘new race politics’ augmented throughout the conference discussions, and they were clearly refreshing for the majority of people present to hear. As trust deepened, both speakers and attendees were increasingly frank and forthright with their opinions. Several people stressed their concern that in the last decade or so anti-racism had morphed into anti-white racism, which was seemingly now an acceptable form of race-based hatred. One speaker noted that he was disturbed to see a senior civil servant proudly showing off his copy of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which the speaker described as “one of the worst books ever written on the topic of race-relations.”
Significant inconsistencies of the ‘new race politics’ were pointed out, and it was with pleasure that one speaker highlighted the recent abandonment of the term ‘BAME’ (‘Black Asian and Minority Ethnic’). Given that black people coming from Africa to Europe do significantly better overall at the levels of education and career development than black people coming from the West Indies, and Asians now do considerably better at such levels than those categorised as ‘ethnically white,’ referring to people as members of the ‘BAME community’ tells us nothing other than that such people are not white, which is clearly trivial unless, of course, one is seeking to divide the world into whites and non-whites, which seems not only unhelpful but, well, racist.
Throughout the conference, there was plenty of talk of history, education, social mobility, overcoming racism, and many other important topics, analyses of which I was pleased to listen to. Nonetheless, the elephant in the room remained wholly ignored: immigration. The UK has a culture crisis largely because of mass, uncontrolled immigration and the accompanying ‘multicultural’ ideal of politicians that was supposed to make such ludicrous border-policy unproblematic. The UK has a housing crisis mostly caused by mass immigration. The UK has a considerable crime and violence crisis, a disproportionate amount of which is caused by immigrant communities. Certainly, not all the UK’s problems are caused by immigration, but a great many of them are caused by it, and almost all other problems are exacerbated by it. And whilst there appears to be enormous appetite among ordinary people to have this conversation in a respectful yet honest manner, it is a conversation that remains suppressed by the political and managerial class—a class, as it happens, that was strongly represented at this conference.
A word that continually cropped up was ‘culture’: we need a more ‘tolerant culture,’ a more ‘socially mobile culture,’ a more ‘open culture,’ a more ‘understanding culture.’ The ‘culture of home’ and ‘school culture’ were discussed extensively. No one, however, raised the problem of what is generally associated in the popular imagination with ‘black culture.’ In the popular imagination, ‘black culture’ is routinely associated with gang life and the music that celebrates pimps, prostitutes (or ‘hoes’), guns, violence, crime, ‘playing’ women, and smoking ‘weed.’ Those who have undergone the torturous experience of hearing the apparently talent-free ‘drill’ or ‘grime’ rap genres will know what I’m talking about—but how has this happened?
It seems odd that a skin-colour ought to be associated with a music genre at all, let alone an entire—blatantly harmful—counterfeit culture. This seems stranger still, given that such music and such themes of crime and sexual violence were not those generally associated with the black community in the past. Only half a century ago, ‘black culture’—inasmuch as it was considered as a distinct culture at all—was chiefly associated with large and strong family loyalties, evangelical church congregations, gospel choirs, and other such wholesome things. It is extraordinary that prominent members of the black community and other ethnic minority groups are not denouncing this contemporary counterfeit culture and condemning any association of it with the black community, most of whose members no doubt just want to achieve the kind of human flourishing to which present-day ‘rap culture’ is totally at odds. Again, the notion of ‘black culture,’ or what is customarily considered black culture in the popular imagination, was missing from the conversations at the conference.
In light of this criticism, it was uplifting to hear important black thinkers being quoted, like Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin—thinkers who were not beyond the Western intellectual tradition but rather, as one speaker put it, “always in conversation with the Western canon.” Writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Saul Bellow once asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” to which the journalist Ralph Wiley responded: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” Indeed, Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the English too—that’s how high culture works; it transcends its realisation in a given culture, and by so doing it speaks to all peoples and all cultures. The Western tradition has repeatedly achieved such universality, and this tradition is certainly not determined along racial lines: to consider, say, composers like Vicente Lusitano, Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as outside the great treasury of Western material culture on account of skin pigment is unreflective, to put it kindly.
Disappointingly, again and again, the solution to the problems raised by both speakers and attendees was more liberalism: we just need more tolerance, more discussion, more free exchange of ideas, more acceptance, and so forth. What few seemed to acknowledge is that—in the Western world—such ‘liberal values’ have only flourished, and will only flourish, in highly conservative societies.
At one point, a Cambridge academic made the entirely correct point that despotism and oppression of any dissent are the norm for society, and not the exception. Thus, the pressing question, he said, is not “why are intolerance and censorship on the rise?” but rather “why have freedom and tolerance been the norm in these isles for the last three centuries?”
In answering this question, the scholar irritatingly pointed to the settlement of 1689. In that year, he asserted, we finally achieved a liberal society, and consequently liberal values flourished. This story, of course, is a myth. Prior to that Dutch invasion, what had fast been emerging in the ancient constitution of the Three Kingdoms was a highly tolerant society. The kind of royal supremacy which the Stuarts were claiming was part of an attempt to slam the brakes on the ascendancy of those rapacious Whigs who sought to steal the commons, relocate the peasantry from their ancestral lands, and crush the poorest of them by indentured servitude to fill their own pockets. Eventually, James II had his throne stolen precisely because he was too religiously tolerant, seeking as he was to extend political and religious liberties to Roman Catholics and protestant dissenters which Anglicans alone had come to enjoy.
Thereafter, a highly oppressive and avaricious regime was imposed on these isles by those treasonous Whigs under their new usurper Willem van Oranje, a regime which people were expected to call ‘glorious’ in exchange for cheap gin. Until 1871, only communicant members of the Church of England could step foot in Cambridge University (and Oxford and Durham)—a statute which I expect would have barred almost everyone at the conference. The point of this little historical digression is that it was precisely because Britain did not have a liberal society that certain liberal values were permitted to emerge.
The imposition of the post-1688 regime was something of a felix culpa, for—paradoxically—in such harsh and overbearing systems, ‘liberal values’ can easily grow. The truth of this point has been experienced by us all: everyone knows that one can be freer with one’s opinions around the family table than at a dinner party with strangers. Why? Because there is sufficient understanding of persons to speak with the expectation of not being misunderstood. Basically, you can only really speak openly when there are enough unspoken shared assumptions for it to be safe to speak.
Now, however, we have attempted to create a society that doesn’t merely allow for liberal values, but is itself a liberal society by form, in which anyone can come and anyone can go, and in which people can supposedly ‘self-author’ in any way they want, for there are no transcendent truths which we publicly profess, no end for which we live together, and no ultimate principles on which we can build a common home. Our only value is to tolerate all values. Our only purpose is to accept all purposes. Our only home is a place that belongs to anyone and everyone. The end for which we exist is the rejection of any shared finality.
Such a society—a society liberal by form—is no society at all. It is a settlement in which liberal values cannot emerge but must be suppressed, for any individual commitment that also purports to be a commitment to an objective good is deemed an assault on all commitments at odds with that good. In turn, to ensure an ever-freer society, evermore coercion must be deployed to relegate to the private sphere all those moral commitments that make a claim on the public arena—in the words of Rousseau, people must be forced to be free. Thus, any liberal society sooner or later becomes one in which all values-based discussions—like the discussions this very conference sought to foster—must be expelled to the outer void. Here, in the liberal society, you must work and be silent—but don’t worry, that silence is one you can enjoy in exchange for unlimited porn and fast-food.
It is precisely the reduction of the end for which we exist to mere private accumulation of commodities that brought in the eras of intense racism. With public commitment to transcendent values abandoned, everything was reduced to material categories in the nascent physicalism of the Enlightenment, and it wasn’t long before humans themselves were considered under this aspect. Rather than seen as moral agents and heirs to the same common goods as all who share in human nature, humans were first categorised abstractly and then ranked in a hierarchy of ‘worth’ according to the closed and truncated worldview of ‘Enlightened’ men. David Hume, in an infamous footnote in the essay Of National Characters, ranked the races, denigrating Africans as those who belong on the bottom rung. And as Sohrab Ahmari recently wrote:
Immanuel Kant, for example, claimed that the “greatest degree of perfection” lies in the white race, while at the bottom were “the Negroes,” who could at best be trained as “servants.” In between were “yellow Indians,” American natives, and “Moors.” That last group, he advised, should be punished using split canes, rather than sticks, lest their thick skins prevent the blood from finding release. Likewise, even as Thomas Jefferson declared that all men are created equal, the American Founder determined that black people were by “nature” childlike creatures, incapable of abstract thought and fine art.
Race-based slavery and similar injustices had been long-condemned in Europe. When Pope Eugene IV issued his 1435 decree (Sicut Dudum) condemning Portuguese slave-trading in the Canary Islands—a moral pronouncement that then received ample scholastic support from the School of Salamanca in the following century—he was already working within a tradition of similar judgments. It was the burgeoning materialism of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ of the liberals and its corollary, the expulsion of transcendent commitments—above all, religious commitments—from the public square, that led to the very racism that this conference suggested liberalism could solve.
Liberals claim that liberal societies can both create and manage social pluralism, doing so by not recognising any common and public end for which society’s members exist. Hence, the liberal society promises peace, but in order to deliver peace it must be at war with all serious convictions, all metaphysical claims, all transcendent truths, all developing consensuses. In turn, it will always privilege minority groups, always favour division and multiplicity, always seek to achieve peace by way of conflict. It becomes a unified power to erase all unity, authoritarian to quash all authority, aggressive to stamp out aggression, dogmatic to denounce all dogma. Liberalism is the ultimate snake eating its tail.
The very claims of liberalism are refuted by late-liberalism. Increasingly, liberals and their progeny—namely progressives—are unsatisfied with merely being tolerant people, they want to be good people. In fact, this was a point that was highlighted at the conference: it should not be doubted that many of those who commit themselves to ‘woke-ism’ and the ‘new race politics’ are sincere and genuinely want to make the world better. Never have people really been content to pursue their own private good and merely tolerate those who are doing the same but differently. This is exactly why the term ‘toleration’ has morphed into a synonym of ‘celebration’: you can show your tolerance by celebrating ‘gay pride,’ for example, otherwise you’re clearly just a bigot.
People have always sought to identify an objective good that will bring the whole community to a state of flourishing. People simply want to be good. And what we are currently witnessing in ‘woke-ism’ is the accumulated frustration of those who want to be good but have no idea what goodness is, and so they unite their chaotic emotional impulses to petty secular causes, of which the managerial elite then take advantage to boost their own upward social mobility. Thus, we end up with what we have now: a censorious regime organised by woke capitalism.
The sort of ‘liberal values’ that most people want to enjoy can only be preserved in a non-liberal society. The question is, then, what kind of non-liberal society do we want? What is fast being settled in most Western nations, especially those of the UK, is a highly coercive and censorious approach both at the levels of the state and the customs and habits of civil society in a desperate attempt to expand and cling on to ‘liberal values.’ Consequently, the sort of non-liberal settlement we’ve developed—for the sake of liberalism—is that of a hellish admixture of paternalistic purity-based authoritarianism and surveillance-based soft-totalitarianism, and there’s every indication that this arrangement will only intensify in its methods in the coming decades. In short, you cannot have both liberal values and a liberal society. If you want liberal values, you will have to settle for a non-liberal society. The best we can ask for is a society that is honest about this and is ordered by a robust account of human flourishing rather than the escalating social atomisation and organised chaos we have at present.
At one point during the conference, to my relief, a conservative solution was proposed to one of the social problems facing ethnic minority—especially black—communities in America and Europe. A speaker from the U.S. suggested that we ought to “call out” those who perpetuate the notion that family break-down and having children out of wedlock is acceptable and unharmful. “We shouldn’t be afraid to ask single mothers,” he said, “are you going to marry the man who impregnated you? And if you’re not, why not?” This might seem an approach somewhat lacking in diplomacy, but the speaker’s point was that the health of the family is the foundation of society’s health, and thus such issues are not the mere private business of the individual but affect every one of us. No sooner had he made this point than someone replied from the audience: “But that’s progress!” The audience member went on to explain that, in her view, it’s ‘progress’ that women don’t feel pressure to do other than what they want to do.
It was clear that there was almost nowhere to take the conversation from there. Two competing conceptions of the flourishing of the individual had met, and there was little overlap. For conservatives, the individual’s flourishing is largely a product of a healthy society and the proper induction of that individual into that society. For liberals, the flourishing of the individual is always antecedent to society, and thus the individual must derive certain benefits from society whilst always simultaneously emancipating himself from it in order to remain his ‘authentic self’ and never be hindered in pursuing his own private good. Clearly the speaker who was worried about family break-down in black communities sympathised with the former conception of human flourishing, and the audience member sympathised with the latter, and I didn’t get the impression that the speaker had the majority’s support.
The kind of non-liberal society in defence of which conservatives like me have always argued is that of a tradition-based society. The very imperatives which this conference dodged are those that conservatives think should be at the forefront of conversations about how to preserve ‘liberal values’ of tolerance and freedom: the need for public religion, a strong sense of national identity, celebration of civilisation (of which the nation is only a part), positive support and protection of marriage and family, respect—rather than repudiation—of history’s great figures, explicit and jealous defence of both low and high culture, and so forth. When a people have such shared assumptions and commitments around which their life together orbits, speech can be a lot freer, and social aberrations—so long as they don’t directly undermine the common good—can be much more easily tolerated. Such an arrangement is certainly preferable, it seems to me, to the censorious and intolerant regime we’re currently developing for the sake of some pluralistic utopia. Note, too, that among such conservative themes, material categories such as race and skin pigment are not present: trying to think of society down racial lines quickly meets a dead-end.
This conference certainly had many merits, but we simply must get out of its flawed paradigm; the solution on offer cannot always be more liberalism, for it is liberalism’s effects that are the very problems this conference unknowingly wanted to solve. There seemed to me a certain irony in calling the conference ‘Towards the Common Good.’ One thing that was painfully missing was the kind of ‘common good conservatism’ that takes seriously the public nature of the moral law, which may have helped to bring to the conversation about race some lasting solutions, consistently missed there due to the general adherence to liberalism.
The work of The Equiano Project is of vital importance, and my hope is that this conference will be the first of many more on the crucial topics of race, ethnicity, national identity, justice, and belonging. My fear, however, is that the same old flawed, tried, and failed solutions will be repackaged and suggested anew so long the entire discussion is framed within the parameters of liberalism—an ideology that is, in any case, on its last legs. If a voice were given to conservatives, traditionalists, and ‘post-liberals’ in the conversation about racial justice and future social cohesion, we might begin to hear some proposals that go beyond those of foundering liberal ideology—which is, after all, in large part to blame for the problems this conversation seeks to address.